At the launch of his book, ‘Shiksha: My Experiments as an Education Minister’, on 5 September, Delhi’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia reminded us how hard he works. He has many portfolios, and his boss is a tough taskmaster. Sisodia, whose book with his photo on the cover was launched by former President Pranab Mukherjee, said he would go home and write the chapters through voice dictation in Google Docs.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, speaking at the event like a supporting speaker, did not name Sisodia or his position even once. He tried to take credit for the turnaround in Delhi’s government-run schools by using the word “hum (we)”. If you look for these speeches on YouTube, you will easily find them on a channel called “Manish Sisodia At Work”.
There is perhaps no deputy chief minister in the country who has built his image and profile the way Manish Sisodia has. As Arvind Kejriwal wasted his political capital on a badly fought Punjab assembly election and by poorly positioning himself as the national alternative to BJP’s Narendra Modi, his deputy remained consistent in creating a governance profile for himself.
Today, Arvind Kejriwal is seen as a leader who failed at national politics, and Manish Sisodia as a hard-working minister who has done a good job with education and health. If you ask people in Delhi, they will even credit Sisodia for the mohalla clinics, even though it’s minister Satyendra Jain who holds the health portfolio. And that’s because Sisodia has often plastered the city with hoardings that display him in full prominence, bombarded radio channels with ads carrying his voice, and generally left no stone unturned to make sure everyone knows what a great administrator he is. Poor Satyendra Jain hasn’t had such opportunities.
Ordinarily, this should not be a problem. It is great that Arvind Kejriwal is producing a second line of leadership in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). How many top leaders do so? So many political parties would collapse today if the top leader exited, unless there was a prodigal son or daughter to take over.
Arvind Kejriwal has often been accused of being an authoritarian leader who doesn’t let other leaders grow. He likes yes men; dissent is swiftly punished. Mayank Gandhi, Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav were some of the leaders to be summarily kicked out of the party. Kumar Vishwas is as good as a sacked leader, the letter not formally signed only to prevent him from becoming a martyr.
By letting Manish Sisodia take credit for his work, Arvind Kejriwal is showing that he believes in collective responsibility. It also encourages the party rank and file to see opportunities for personal growth, once they know they will get credit for their work.
There is only one hero
The problem, however, is political. Arvind Kejriwal is the beneficiary of a presidential style of campaigning. He got rid of Anna Hazare after the Lokpal movement and made the Aam Aadmi Party all about himself. The party won 67 of 70 assembly seats in Delhi in 2015 with a simple slogan: “Paanch saal Kejriwal” — Kejriwal for five years. A slogan like that does not sell any issue or promise to voters. It just sells the leader. It is a formula that works very well in elections, the greatest example being a certain Narendra Modi.
A good narrative has only one hero. Amit Shah has been the executioner of Narendra Modi’s will. Can you imagine Amit Shah overshadowing Modi? Even if he does, what would that do to Modi’s image? Most narratives, real or fictional, have only one hero.
Ask the person sitting next to you to name one of the two deputy chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, and s/he may not know. The presidential style of politics has only one leader. With Manish Sisodia overshadowing Arvind Kejriwal, the average voter may be left confused about who exactly is the governance face of the AAP.
The people of Delhi have been told ad nauseam that Manish Sisodia has done revolutionary work but when it’s time for the election, in February 2020, they will be asked to vote for Arvind Kejriwal. This cognitive dissonance could hurt the AAP, especially if the election is seen as a Kejriwal versus Modi contest.
The credit for Sisodia’s work should also benefit the party, some might say, since it’s the broom symbol people have to vote on anyway. But we know it doesn’t work like that anymore. Elections now are whether people like the CM/PM face or not.
Neither here nor there
When Manish Sisodia was first made deputy chief minister in 2015, the implication was obvious. While Arvind had promised “Paanch Saal Kejriwal,” his eye was on the national game. Kejriwal would go around winning AAP state elections across India, and Sisodia would run Delhi.
That script was followed when Kejriwal started devoting all his time to the AAP campaign in Punjab in 2016. Suddenly, Manish Sisodia’s photo was seen in Delhi government advertisements in newspapers and hoardings. There were even rumours, incredulous as they may seem, that Kejriwal wanted to be Punjab chief minister himself. In that case, Sisodia would have become the chief minister of Delhi.
But when the AAP badly lost the Punjab elections, which was followed by an equally humiliating defeat in the Delhi municipal elections, Kejriwal decided to give up his national ambitions and focus on governance in Delhi. This is when Manish Sisodia should have gone off his publicity blitzkrieg, but he was only getting started.
Arvind Kejriwal has tried to take credit for a few things, like power subsidies that keep electricity bills low, but these efforts are not as talked about as Sisodia’s school reforms. The announcement of free bus and Metro rides for women in Delhi has failed to become a talking point. His claims that his efforts to reduce pollution in Delhi have worked will soon be put to test. Not even the odd-even car rationing scheme excites anyone anymore.
Kejriwal’s image today is marked by inconsistency: today he’s bashing Modi, tomorrow he’s not. Today he’s doing odd-even, tomorrow he’s not. Today he wants to expand the AAP’s footprint, tomorrow he’s again talking about municipal issues in Delhi. Sisodia’s image has benefited by the consistency of doing publicity on one issue for three years, education.
Make Kejriwal great again
Arvind Kejriwal’s photo and radio ads are now back with a bang across Delhi. There’s a slogan in red paint behind auto-rickshaws these days: “I ❤ Kejriwal”. In 2015, people ‘loved’ Kejriwal because they remembered how Delhi had been freed of petty corruption in his 49-day rule in 2013-14. They liked his promises regarding water and electricity. Kejriwal’s challenge now is to make the people of Delhi ‘love’ him again and it will take more than just slogans on auto-rickshaws. First of all, he needs to make his deputy spend time building ‘Brand Kejriwal’ rather than ‘Brand Sisodia’.
An even better idea for Kejriwal might be to declare Sisodia as the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate. Kejriwal can’t chase his national dreams by being Delhi chief minister. The post diminishes him and betrays the promise he held out in national politics from 2011 to 2015. As the national opposition sinks into an ever-deeper coma, this is the best time for Kejriwal to get back to national politics, learning from all the mistakes he has made.
And Manish Sisodia won’t make a bad CM at all.
Views are personal.